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THE FOREWORD

BY PAUL COFFEY

September, 1980. Jasper, Alberta. Brian Watson blows the whistle.

"Speed up."

Second whistle: slow down.

Third whistle: speed up.

All of the sudden, this voice says, "slow down, kid. We've got six weeks to get in shape."

I turned my eyes to look around and laid my eyes on the biggest man I'd ever seen and I replied, "yes, sir."

That was my introduction to Dave Semenko.

Later that afternoon we were sitting around the Athabasca Hotel, which was what all the guys did and Dave saw me sitting by myself. He came over and says, "why don't you buy the boys a round of beer?"

Again I said, "yes, sir."

The bill was $50, and he said to me, "are you OK?"

And I said, "yup, but I've got no money."

He smiled and said, "yeah, but look at all the friends you've got."

I had this feeling that from that point on, I'd be taken care of.

THIS IS DAVE

BY CHRIS WESCOTT

"H

annah Semenko and her mother Alana were cleaning out her father's condo.

As tribute to the man and his love of music, the two decided to listen to some of his collection. They hit play on what was already loaded up.

Frank Sinatra's "I did it my way" begins.

The tears fall.

It was almost as if Dave had put that track on to give his girls a message tailored solely for them.

After all, he did do it his way.

***

There are many kinds of toughness.

You're tough, if you rush in and drop the gloves to defend a teammate.

You're tough, if you take on the most feared enforcers in hockey.

You're tough, if you battle cancer.

Dave Semenko was tough.

But Semenko was a lot of other things as well. He was a good man, a funny man, an attentive and loving father, a man of tradition. But yes, he was tough.

Legendary builder of the Oilers Glen Sather told the story of how he took Semenko skiing in Banff, Alberta. Semenko had never tried this particular sport before.

The two struck out on Mount Norquay and tried a few bunny hills first to get Semenko's feet underneath him. Then they went back up and there was a steeper hill… an icy hill.

"I don't think we're going to ski this hill," Sather told him. "I don't think you're ready for it."

alt textDave Semenko in his playing days with the Oilers. Photo provided by Edmonton Oilers

Before he could finish, Semenko was gone. Sather didn't have a chance at keeping up.

"And then he fell, and he was going down head first. He couldn't get his skis over to slow himself down. When he finally did, it took him into the trees and he hit a tree head first."

Sather was worried.

"By the time I got there I thought, 'oh god, maybe the guy is dead.'"

When Sather approached Semenko he saw that his friend had lost two teeth. One was in the snow; one was hanging out of his mouth. There was blood everywhere. When ski patrol arrived, one of them was a good-looking girl.

Semenko turned and said, "how do you like me now?"

Not just anyone could hit a tree head first, be lying in a pool of blood and still have the kind of humour and quick wit that encapsulated Semenko.

"Typical Dave," said Sather.

He was always quick to make fun of himself.

He'd call himself "The Most Beautiful Man."

"Oh, I'm so beautiful," he'd tell his daughter.

Now, Semenko didn't have much hair. But he was constantly joking as if he did. Years ago, he took his daughter Hannah to go see "The Princess Diaries."

"The main girl had this puffy, black hair and there is this scene when the hairdresser is trying to brush through it and comb broke," said Hannah. "The hairdresser said, 'like a wolf.' Ever since then, whenever he got a haircut or something I would never notice because there wasn't much to be changed.

"Oh, you didn't notice my hair? It's like a wolf!"

Semenko was funny in every single aspect of life.

alt textDave Semenko and his young daughter Hannah. Photo provided by the Semenko family

Semenko's former teammate, close friend and Oilers Entertainment Group Vice Chair Kevin Lowe says there wasn't a day they were together that Dave didn't make him laugh.

A tearful Wayne Gretzky also remembers Semenko fondly for his humour. He told the story of a time Dave was sent down to the minors.

"David was called into the office, and when you get called into Glen's office, that's not a good sign," said Gretzky. "Dave came out and said 'I'm going to be going down to Wichita for two weeks.'"

Two weeks went by and Dave returned. He was sitting next to Gretzky in the locker room when Gretzky asked how his stint in the minors went.

"He said, 'oh, it was unreal. I played the power play, I played on the penalty kill, regular shift, 4-on-4, 3-on-3.' I said, 'wow, that must have been a lot of fun. How was your team? He said, 'we were 0-6.'"

Gretzky laughed as he recalled Semenko telling him how he asked for jersey number 99 down in the minors.

Gretzky said Semenko told the media once he had four wishes in hockey, three came true.

"I wanted to be NHL Player of the Week, and I got that," Semenko said. "I wanted to be on the cover of The Hockey News, and I got that. I wanted to lift the Stanley Cup, and when we lifted the Stanley Cup I got that."

The fourth one he never got was Sather coming into the locker room after a big win and saying "Gretz, Mess, Coff, Semenk, take tomorrow off."

When you talk to most of the Oilers greats, they'll tell you Semenko was almost always the catalyst behind a good story.

"We'll be telling Dave's stories for the rest of our lives and probably the best stories we ever came across were with Mr. Semenko," said former Oilers forward Glenn Anderson.

When he entered his role as an ambassador for Oilers Entertainment Group, he'd be asked how his assignments or entertaining had gone the night before. Semenko would always say, "I brought the house down."

He loved his new role with OEG, and embraced it wholly.

But the role Semenko is most well known for was being "Gretzky's Bodyguard."

"He made us all a lot safer on the ice," said former teammate Charlie Huddy. "I don't think I saw him lose any fights. There were some tough guys back then and he wasn't backing down. He was proud to do his job and he did it with the best of them."

Fans would marvel at his size, strength and meanness on the ice. When Hannah watches some of her dad's old hockey fights, she doesn't see the man she knows so well.

"I don't see my dad when that happens," said Hannah. "It's a different person. It's really quite interesting."

Hannah describes her father as someone who would avoid confrontation at all costs, but would become visibly distraught at the sight of someone - even a complete stranger - being disrespected.

"If we were in line for coffee and the man in front of him was being rude to the servers, I could just feel the energy of my dad getting really mad because he hated when people were treated lesser," said Hannah.

"He really didn't stand for it. And he wouldn't ever put up with me being rude to anyone. When I was little and didn't know any better, it was really important to him that I grew up knowing to respect elders and stuff like that."

MUSIC MAN

Dave Semenko was all about his traditions, particularly when it came to Hannah and family.

Every year, the two would take a road trip to Winnipeg to see his side of the family. It was always around the end of July, beginning of August. They'd pack things up around two or three in the morning, then strike out on their adventure. Dave would put his daughter - half asleep - into the car and they'd drive.

Every single time they'd leave or enter city limits, Semenko would press play on "Love Grows" by Edison Lighthouse.

"Those were probably the best memories I have of him," said Hannah.

Dave would play songs from throughout multiple decades on those long car rides. He'd play everything from the 50s to the 60s and 70s.

The two would drive out to Grand Beach and would take photos. Dave loved to take photos.

alt textDave Semenko and his daughter Hannah at Christmas. Photo provided by the Semenko family

"He'd drag me on these ridiculously long exhibitions through the sand dunes and it was sweltering hot, just to take nice photos of the landscapes and put me near trees and stuff and have me get set up. We've found stacks and stacks and stacks of photos from Grand Beach over the years because this would happen every year."

Then back in the car to listen to more music.

"He had cases, and cases, and cases of CDs," said Hannah. "I don't even know how many hundreds of CDs that he still has and one year he paid me to upload them all into iTunes and it was the worst job in the world."

His taste in music was eclectic. He had everything from Gnarls Barkley to Nirvana and Elvis. He was constantly listening to music.

"Constantly," said Hannah.

Semenko was a man of all the arts. He was a big movie guy, on top of his love for music. According to his daughter, Dave was insistent that she learn about older movies and together they'd watch everything. This included cartoons, when Hannah was younger.

Imagine the massive Dave Semenko sitting through "Fern Gully" for the 63rd time. Or "Beauty and the Beast."

Semenko, as humorous as he was, compared himself to Gaston.

"Whenever his song came on, we'd dance around the living room."

THROUGH TOUGH TIMES

"I didn't know he wasn't feeling well."

Hannah and her mother were oblivious to Dave's illness, as was Dave. Semenko tried to tough it out when he first started to feel under the weather earlier this year.

"He just said he wasn't feeling well and had the flu," remembers Hannah.

But in reality, it was something much more sinister. It would be the toughest fight of Semenko's life, and ultimately one he could not win.

At the end of May, Semenko drove Hannah and Alana to the airport, as the ladies were off to Seattle. He wasn't looking well at that point, but nobody thought it was anything to be concerned with. Dave was tough. Dave would get better.

Hannah didn't see her father again until the beginning of June.

"I guess in those three weeks, he had gotten extremely sick and didn't say anything to anyone," said Hannah. "He was in a lot of back pain, he couldn't eat, he couldn't sleep, he was uncomfortable laying down. He'd go for drives just to make the pain go away, because it was easier to sit up. He didn't know what was going on. He just thought he had the flu."

Semenko thought about going to see a doctor earlier when in pain, but didn't want to go if he was "just feeling a little down." The emergency room was busy, there were other people who needed help. He'd tough it out.

"There was no record of any of his recent health, because he hadn't been to a doctor in 15 years," said Lowe. "I guess he'd been the picture of health."

Hannah saw her father again on a Monday, as she recalls. He was yellow. His eyes and skin were yellow. He had lost weight. He was in pain. It was at this point that the daughter became scared.

alt textDave Semenko celebrates a goal with other Oilers alumni at the 2016 Heritage Classic in Winnipeg. Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers

"The first thing I did was I went and called my mom and told her to call dad because I don't think he's going to tell me if something is wrong, but he might tell you. I wanted her to ask him what's happening. So she called him and he said he was fine and my mom called me back and said 'oh, it's fine. He probably had the flu. When we get older our bodies take a little bit longer to recover.'"

Semenko checked himself into hospital that evening. On Tuesday, he found out it was pancreatic cancer. On Thursday, his family found out.

"He was just so strong, I guess, that he couldn't believe it would be anything more than the flu."

Even whilst dealing with a heavy diagnosis, Semenko never lost that sense of humour.

"He was his funny self about it," said Hannah. "He was saying, 'oh, I'm so comfortable here. They give me food, I have TV and there's this yellow maniac down the hall that gives a good show.'"

There was an older patient on his floor that would cause a scene outside of Semenko's room.

"And she'd go around at night terrorizing nurses about wanting to watch a different television show and she'd bang her walker on the ground. Dad called her 'The Yellow Menace.'"

Semenko and his daughter would laugh.

"His strength (sticks out to me) and how humble and kind he was and how funny, even when things were not really funny," said Hannah. "Even when he was in the hospital, he was still cracking jokes."

As his former teammates and close friends rallied to him, they told Semenko and his family they would do anything to help. The prognosis was not good, but "it felt treatable," said Lowe.

Unfortunately, things deteriorated rapidly.

Semenko passed away on June 29, 2017 at the age of 59. The city of Edmonton, Oilers fans, his co-workers, family, friends and former teammates came together in those next few days to mourn the loss of a great man, but also to celebrate his life and the impact he had on others.

"We were treated like royalty, almost," said Hannah.

"For me, I was seen as a father figure and a mentor. I lost a son," said Sather, who spoke at the Celebration of Life ceremony at Rogers Place on July 6.

"Today is not about statistics, goals, assists and so on. It's about the measure of the man, and Dave Semenko measured up. He leaves us with a simple thought that might be Dave Semenko: he was an Oiler, he was talented, he was generous, he was kind and he was humble. It took him a long way."

From the outside, Semenko will always be remembered for being that tough competitor on the ice - massive, fierce and imposing enforcer. But for those who know him best, it's the man inside they'll always remember - smart, funny, kind, loyal.

That's Dave Semenko.

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